Monday, March 12, 2012

How Do you Like Your Stakes?

From The Writers Alley Archives:

So how do you? If we’re talking steaks, I’m a medium well kind-of-gal, but when we’re talking about ‘writing’ stakes. The best way to serve those up is well-done.

What is a stake, you ask?

Well, besides the wooden piece that holds down your tent, or heretics are strapped to, or slays certain toothy-undead, it’s also one of the key elements to create a page-turner novel. It’s the reason readers care.

Stakes increase our empathy, draw us in, capture our hearts, and lead us to the last page. It’s like climbing a hill that keeps getting steeper and steeper until the hiker is clinging to the side of a cliff, barely able to keep from falling down against the jagged rocks below.

You can pick up any great book and see how the stakes for the main character keep increasing until the reader is unsure whether the character will achieve his/her goal at all.

Donald Maas says “high stakes yield high success”

What’s the essence of increasing the stakes? Guiding the readers into as deep a relationship with your characters as you have. Close first person. But that means we have to know our characters intimately – otherwise we cannot describe what we do not know.

So once you know your character what questions should you ask to increase your stakes?

1. What does your character NEED? WANT? Whether it’s to destroy the ring of power, find a husband, an anectdote, or solve a crime – you must know what your character needs most – or wants most.

2. What makes my character freeze with fear? Obviously in the Twilight saga, vampires do not cause Bella to ‘freeze with fear’, but Edward leaving does. So, of course, it has to happen.

3. How can I make my characters needs or wants matter even more to him? (this automatically increases the stakes) For example, in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – it is one thing for Indiana to want the Cup of Christ. He’s in the secret cave ready to go and get it. The tension is automatically ramped up when the bad guy shoots Indy’s father and then he HAS to go get the Cup of Christ. First he wants the cup, but the stakes are raised because he needs the cup. Changing the want into a need automatically increases the tension.

4. How can you make your characters suffer? Or place them in danger? (I’m not talking just making them uncomfortable, I mean twist the knife. As sad as it sounds, readers enjoy reading about people suffering to the max…and then overcoming the impossible.)

5. Are there external and internal threats? Your characters have both external and internal goals, therefore they must have conflict in both of those areas too. In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the external threats to Darcy and Elizabeth are Lady Catherine de Burgh, Lizzie’s mother (and sisters’) behavior. Internal threats are Lizzie’s and Darcy’s own personal pride and/or insecurities. Their own assumptions about the other person.

6. Can you write down the stakes in your wip? Do you know what they are?

7. How can you make those stakes higher? How can you make the trouble worse?

8. And even higher? Write it down.

Remember – you must be MEAN to your hero or heroine. Being nice does NOT increase tension. You want to try and push them to the breaking point.

In my wip, my heroine never wants to work in the rural Blue Ridge Mountains again, but as her first job, she’s sent to start a new speech-pathology program at UVA’s satellite campus in the teeny (very rural) town of Wise, VA.

She WANTS to work at UVA, Charlottesville like her dad. (external)

She WANTS to prove to herself she is not like her alcoholic mother, and certainly not dependent on anyone else for her well-being. (internal)

1. She’s in rural Blue Ridge Mountains

2. She makes a wager with her supervisor to turn cattle farmer Reece Mitchell into a high-class, smooth talking gentleman in 6 weeks or her supervisor will present her research at the national convention (which gives her a good boost toward a job in a much better place than Wise, VA) - He's not an easy fixer-upper either. Cute, but far from high-class.

3. She feels an immediate attraction for the cattle farmer – who has no intention of leaving his farm and family to move anywhere else.

4. She has a condescending college Dean who wants to get rid of the satellite program, but the program is the way the heroine (Adelina) will prove herself.

5. By the end, she is almost loses her life because she gets drunk (something her mom would do) and crashed her car into a dam waterway which is filling with water.

6. The final stake is her choice: to stay in Wise with the guys she loves and forego her dream, or give up on this amazing man and go to Charlottesville.

I’m bound to think of more ways to make things worse as I go along, but you get the basic idea.

So what about you? Can you list some of the stakes in your wip? How can you make them worse? And even more worse?

Share – and let us brainstorm a bit with you.


Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Oh this was great fun! I am generally a nice person, so it is rather fun to be MEAN on purpose and it be okay. :)

When I have more time, I may stop back to share some of my stakes.

Mary Vee Storyteller said...

I've learned new writing lingo. I knew the concept, not the lingo. Can I go home now?

Here is a "stake" near the climax of my YA fantasy WIP. The protagonist, Marcus,finds the secret to save his country. As he reaches into the crevice of a rock to grab it, an invading dragon sores away from the battlefield, swoops down, and digs it's claws into Marcus' back. Sailing high above the battlefield in the clutches of the dragon, Marcus realizes he'll never save his country....or will he?

Great post, Pepper!

Pepper said...

Hidee Sherrinda & Mary,

Great clip into your novel, Mary. Btw, my YA has a few dragons in it too :-)

Krista Phillips said...

LOVE Steaks... Medium, pink in the middle, but not red:-) But ugh, well done? Nope. Me likes my steak juicy!

Now Stakes... in my Sandwich story, for the heroine, she wants custody of her little brother who is in foster care, I raise the stakes when she finds out that his foster parents have filed to adopt him. I raise them even more at the end, but I don't want to give away the climax of the novel too:-)

Pepper said...

Ooo, great sounding And on a sandwich no less ;-)

Suzanne said...

I had one of those great shocking moments while sleeping a few nights ago that involved me finding the key point of the climax of my story - or at least, one of the key point. It also involved the possible death of millions, including every single one of my character. I was pretty happy with my muse that night.

Also, the actual reason I'm commenting, is because your WIP sounds amazing. First, when you said speech-pathology, I got a little excited, then reading your stakes just made it better! I'm a little nerdy when it comes to those kinds of things. I'm at university double majoring in Linguistics and Communication Disorders. I really really want to go on to be a professor of Linguistics and do research with Neurology, but my back up is speech pathology. (This does not include the dream of Best Selling Author!)

Anyway, my point being, I would love to read your novel! Guess I'm going to have to start following you on twitter, in great expectation of it's publication. :)

Pepper said...

Thanks for visiting - and WOW, what a double major! TOUGH.
Love Linguistics, though. TEaching Phonetics is a blast! Neurology is very tough, but amazing. I work at a TBI clinic and I've learned so much about how much MORE I need to learn :-)
Btw, you just made my day.
Speech-pathology is a great field and writing is a wonderful dream. I'd say that makes for a fantastic combo :-)

Debra Chapoton, author said...

Thanks for a great post. It comes at a time in my writing and editing that I needed to be reminded to make the stakes higher. I'm printing this post out to read it again and again.

Casey said...

I love this post and it's even better the second time around.

I have to giggle though at the older pictures/head shots...because it's an older post.

But a goodee!

Susan Anne Mason said...

Hi Pepper,

Great topic and one I always need reminding of. UP THOSE STAKES!

Your wip sounds like a lot of fun! (Except for the car crash!) Does the hero rescue her? Okay, you can't give away the ending. Will have to wait.


Pepper said...

I should add a few more stakes to the list too - now the the novel is in the last few chapters. Poor thing...I did increase her angst a bit (and liked it WAY too much :-)

She's not the only one who has stakes. So does the hero

Anonymous said...

Sherrinda, you scare me. Being mean on purpose? Actually, I think you and I may just be cut from the same cloth. :)

Pepper, I loved your post. Thanks for challenging me to raise the stakes for my hero and heroine. I like your list of questions to ask and ideas to use. Your story sounds wonderful--looking forward to reading it one day. :)

Pepper said...

The book is a romcom can be pretty sure that the heroine DOES NOT DIE.
Other than that, it's a secret :-)

Pepper said...

Thanks! I really love writing stories about my home in Appalachia - and twisting the classic My Fair Lady on its head was so much fun!

Pepper said...

Glad it was helpful, Debbie. I thin it's so hard to keep the stakes tougher and tougher...except for Casey Herringshaw. She's already pretty tough on her poor heroine :-)

Beth K. Vogt said...

Thanks for the reminder to be mean to my characters. I will keep this in mind as I rewrite my fast draft.
Bwahahahaha ...


Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Jeanne T, you are my nice/mean twin? I love it!!!! :)

Oh, isn't it nice to be mean once in awhile? And Pepper, you are so good at explaining it! :)

Unknown said...

Wow, this is seriously good stuff. Love the reminder to make things worse...and worse...and worse for my poor little characters. :)

Pepper said...

snicker, Beth
The only time when being mean is good :-)

Pepper said...

Thanks, Sherrinda & Melissa.

I'm much better with STEAKS than STAKES. Don't like to hurt my people...but, it does make for a much more interesting story

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Mmm hmm...this is good stuff! I like my steak medium but I like my stakes high! You gave some great pointers in this post, Pepper, and I will be keeping them all in mind as I work on my new WIP.